Computer, Humans Square off Tonight on Jeopardy

From the creators of Deep Blue, the game-changing computer that beat human grandmaster Gary Kasparoff at chess in 1997, comes Watson, a general-knowledge genius. Tonight on "Jeopardy!" IBM's Watson will go motherboard-to-head with Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the quiz show's top human competitors of all time.

Over the past four years, IBM programmers have been cramming Watson's memory banks with 200 million pages of reference material, including the text of encyclopedias, thesauruses, and literary works. "He" has also "learned" tens of thousands of previous "Jeopardy!" clues.

Watson's makers say he can never forget anything. The tricky part, though, won't be searching through all that information for an answer; it will be understanding the question in the first place. "Our language evolved assuming our level of intelligence, and it gets very hard for a machine to understand," Michael Dyer, a professor of computer science at UCLA, told TechNewsDaily, a sister site of Life's Little Mysteries. ""You can say, 'John picked up a bat and hit Bill, there was blood everywhere.' We know it's Bill's blood and that it's a baseball bat, not a flying mammal," Dyer said. But a computer might not.

Still, with his flawless memory and ability to perform 80 trillion operations per second, most analysts have picked Watson as the favorite to win tonight. Only time will tell if the computer's prepping will live up to expectations, though, or if he'll get thrown for a loop by a joke, pun, or reference to bats that only humanity can understand.

In the end, whoever wins, the victory will be humankind's. "The reason Watson is amazing is that it took a human brain to design the actual underlying software and structure," Bernard S. Meyerson, IBM's vice president for innovation, told the press. "This isn't something that the machine invented. The machine is a consequence of it."

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Natalie Wolchover

Natalie Wolchover was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012 and is currently a senior physics writer and editor for Quanta Magazine. She holds a bachelor's degree in physics from Tufts University and has studied physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with the staff of Quanta, Wolchover won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory writing for her work on the building of the James Webb Space Telescope. Her work has also appeared in the The Best American Science and Nature Writing and The Best Writing on Mathematics, Nature, The New Yorker and Popular Science. She was the 2016 winner of the  Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, an annual prize for young science journalists, as well as the winner of the 2017 Science Communication Award for the American Institute of Physics.